Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Gone a Bit Flat

Image from amazon.com

I just finished another Laurie Graham, Gone With the Windsors, and am clearly in a minority with this one. I didn't like it much, which surprised me. I've liked the other four books I've read by her. But this one just didn't do it for me.

As you can read in numerous effervescent reviews, this book is the diary of one Maybell Brumby, young widow and childhood frined of the infamous Wallis Simpson. She comes to London after her husband's death, to catch up with her old friend and also with her sister Violet, married to another, minor royal. Maybell and Wallis resume their old friendship immediately, giving Maybell a front-row seat for the whole divorce/abdication drama.

If you were to line up all the characters in this novel, you could fill a minor-league ballpark with them. Maybell's social circle is wide-ranging and inconsistent. She has large numbers of shallow acquaintances, and they're hard to track as they're never really developed. Maybell herself? The people who enjoy this book are laughing at her, not with her. They commonly cite her many malapropisms and misstatements of fact. Only one got a real laugh out of me: the piano-playing "coal porter," inexplicably invited to one of the upper-crust events. The book's full of this sort of thing if you get a kick out of them. After a while, it started to feel like the "backseat of a Volkswagen" joke from the movie Mallrats. Funny the first time, less so the second time. By its tenth appearance, you're gritting your teeth every time someone tees it up with the phrase "uncomfortable position."

So, I didn't like Maybell much. There just wasn't much to her, actually. Nora in The Importance of Being Kennedy led an interesting life all her own. Poppy of The Great Husband Hunt was a constant challenge, as you initially rooted for her, then saw your feelings towards her complicate as she took her life in strange directions and rarely softened towards those who'd been less lucky. And it was a joy to see Peg and her friends successfully remake their lives and change with the changing times in Future Homemakers. Maybell inspires few feelings at all.

The ones who interested me got less and less stage time as the book wore on: Maybell's own family. Violet and her traditionalist husband. Her mischevious older son and her untameable daughter. And Maybell's other sister, Doopie, which is short for stupid, the nickname Maybell gave her after a childhood illness took her hearing (and, the family thought, her intelligence too. They were wrong). Wallis and the King are not presented in a very good light. Wallis struck me throughout as a craven materialistic social climber. The King was a strange sort of man-child, easily tired out by any sort of duty, desirous merely of a quiet life of golfing and dogs and Wallis. Strange that a novel about one of the biggest scandals of the twentieth century, let alone one written by the wonderful Laurie Graham, should seem dull to me. But there it is.